Medieval Cathedrals & The economic success of Europe

Some of the most impressive buildings in the Medieval period were the Cathedrals. The Cathedrals were large churches which took a very long time to build. They were first built in the Romanesque style, which had influences of Rome, Byzantium, and even Islam. They usually had very thick walls, and did not have much space for windows, making them rather dark and dreary on the inside. In the later Middle ages, many people began building Cathedrals in the Gothic style. These cathedrals had structures called flying buttresses, which took a lot of the pressure off of the walls and spread the thrust from the roof horizontally. This enabled them to make the walls thinner and enabled the presence of more windows. Many of these windows had paintings on them. These windows were called stained glass windows.

The way they were built had important theological significance. The cathedrals were built with geometric coherence, which reflected how they thought of God as the great mathematician who constructed the universe. The innovations regarding the possibility of more windows enabled the presence of more light, which was seen as a symbol of God’s grace.

In the High Middle ages, Europe began to experience sustained economic prosperity. The question is, why? After the fall of the Roman empire, Europe became a patchwork of various barbarian states. This was obviously a decentralized system, with many local strongmen taking power. Because of this political decentralization and the development of towns, many local dukes and lords wanted to keep the people happy so that they would stay in their land. This sparked competition between these lords. At times, they would grant freedoms to the people so that they would not move on to some different town or to another local lord’s land. Other civilizations, primarily China, Islam, and India, would usually have one big ruler in charge of a civilization, with the claim that everything in his territory was his. In this political system, there is little competition, just one great monarch. This ruler could tax his people heavily, which is not good for private enterprise. This led to the stagnation of economic prosperity and innovation in many other cultures.

Political decentralization also protected Europe from conquest. If someone wanted to conquer Europe, there would be many different nations to take, one by one. With other cultures, however, it could be taken over in one big sweep.


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